The playful potter

Trupti Patel 2015

Ira Chaudhuri has been in the forefront since those early years when Indian Studio Pottery was in its infancy, located within that generation of potters through whose works we can trace the development of contemporary glazed studio pottery in India. Each of the contemporaries arrived at their calling through individual routes as it would be in those pioneering times. Ira Chaudhuri was born in 1927 as the younger of two sisters to parents who were well known educationists spending their early career years in Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. The influence of both Rabindranath and Gandhian philosophy with its Nationalist ideology deeply inspired her parents. It was a time when the start of indigenising modernism within the Asian and Indian context was beginning to be embraced and identified with. It was also a new era focussing on the local arts and crafts practice within the Visva Bharati campus in Santiniken including song, theatre and dance (in those days regarded scandalous if performed in decent households).   It was clearly a momentous moment where Visvabharati had forged an important place in the cultural art practice in India – in marked contrast to the established British Art Institutions of the time.

The study and organic rhythms of nature and folk/tribal, rural life that stamped its influence on a generation of Modern masters of India who worked at Santiniketan.

When Ira Vakil chose to study Art it was to Santiniketan she went to in 1945 to study painting. It was here Chaudhuri had her experience carving a design on a flat pat of clay to make what she describes a rudimentary sandesh (food) mould. And another was a recounting of walking trips to and fro to Sriniketan (Rural Reconstruction department of Visva Bharati set up to enhance the skills of local potters in making low temperature glazed wares) and Kala Bhavan to glaze two readymade pots, both participated in the spirit of the experience rather than a realization to a future calling.  In formulate, those early years for Chaudhuri have been informed by the experiences and sensibilities inspired by the understated aesthetic of Santiniketan. More specifically the study and organic rhythms of nature and folk/tribal, rural life that stamped its influence on a generation of Modern masters of India who worked there, ethics and ideologies ingrained and last but not least those inspired calligraphic patterns that Rabindranath Tagore wove onto his sheets of writing. Chaudhuri met the sculptor Sankho  Chaudhuri while at Shantiniketan and later married him. Chaudhuri subsequently moved with him to Baroda in 1951 where Shanko was handed charge of setting up the Sculpture Department in the newly formed Faculty of Fine Arts.

Here was a fortuitous environment to find herself in which was to prove a turning point in Ira Chaudhuri`s life, nudging her clearly into the world of pottery. The access and possibilities in Baroda opened up new opportunities for joining yet another new found environment, seeking even more informed cultural frontiers. Encouraged by Sankho, Ira started to learn throwing on the wheel of the pottery department aided then by a traditional potter Poonabhai Khima . This was augmented by self taught knowledge from any industrial technical books available, publications, friends in the Chemistry Department to learn the role of oxides as a fired colouring agent in slip making, experimenting in earthenware temperatures   and as she herself describes becoming` addicted for life`. The addition of an electric kiln at the department, arrival of Bashab Kumar Barua from England (1959) bringing with him the winds of the ceramic revolution at the behest of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada as well as interaction in the department of a visiting architect Nari Gandhi contributed  in a most meaningful way of simply making POTS. Life at Baroda picked up pace in raising her three children, intermittently keeping in touch with pottery and maturing with every experience. Gujarat had a rich rural and tribal heritage and travel to various places created interest in other folk and tribal cultures of India and the world. When Bashab Baruah left, Chaudhuri taught and held charge of the Pottery section of the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1963-64 making earthenware glazed functional pots, contributing with her enthusiasm and daring to experiment with the chemistry of making glazes, understanding the basics to substitute ingredients and trying out new possible combinations. Baroda had the advantage of working industrial ceramic units and Chaudhuri acquired knowledge from places like the Parshuram Potteries and even sourced materials from them. At that time the Pottery department offered non collegiate courses and Chaudhuri along with those students became the mainstay of the section while the rest came to do Pottery only as an elective course every year.

Her shapes are bold, unpretentious, simple, and classical even–unashamedly functional decorated with a kinetic quality on the still forms.

In 1970 the Chaudhuris` moved to Delhi and it marked a start to yet another breakthrough in the potter`s life. Garhi studios (Lalit Kala Akademi) set up by Sankho Chaudhuri (1976) developed a most comprehensive facility for making ceramics, particularly high temperature stoneware. This required understanding and experimenting with a new clay body and glazes. Stoneware gave a fresh impetus to the work that was to develop. Parallel to technique experimentation, Chaudhuri had a keen interest in the relationship of form and its embellishment guided by the utilitarian aspect in all her work. So with every exhibition there was an even more varied body of cups, plates, tea pots, bowls, and sets for use decorated with sheer joy in a most lively spirit of experimentation.

Ira Chaudhuri`s work is inspired by a sense of play, naturally unfolding as one watches her at work. It hints at a liberation from rigid notions of art making and a refusal to any claims of male dominated authority or mastery. Her development as an artist has hinged on her understanding of the material through play achieving a tactile sensuousness combined with an awakened innovation in her surface imagery. Her shapes are bold, unpretentious, simple, and classical even – unashamedly functional decorated with a kinetic quality on the still forms. Her organically devised freehand virtuoso sgraffito marks are guided to reveal motifs loaded with notions of geometry, space and nature on the dimension of a vessel teasing the meanings of both the inside and out. Chaudhuri has drawn inspiration from the joy and simplicity of folk designs, which in themselves are grounded in the joy of life and its land. Chaudhuri`s use of colour follows the earthy tones in nature where there has not been the ambition to focus on glazes but in achieving an intended ethos. Nevertheless there is an immense body of work done over the years that bear testimony to the varied play indulged in achieving results with both clays and glazes. Chaudhuri has a deep fascination with bands and feels well placed bands can `lift` a pot. This informed use is seen in all types of her work from simple painted lines on jars, inlay, wax resist double glazed wares, agateware,  and found its forte in the superb body of sgraffito  works commenced in 1980. Here the ornamentation is contained as a part of the structure on a form, giving a free reign to rhythmic pattern formations. Therein lay inference in those repeated patterns as exist in nature on the very bowls, cups, plates and pots to be used for food. This decidedly marks the significance of the design in the work of Ira Chaudhuri as unique in the contemporary studio pottery of India.

From the early works one can see a relationship between the shape of the form and its embellishment. As Chaudhuri had decided to make only functional pottery, this demand that utility enforces to make a large number of artefacts has allowed Chaudhuri to develop freely her language and relationship between the form and decoration. There is a tendency to consider pots inferior to non-pots she states fully aware of the premise she has chosen and goes on to convincingly justify her position with a positive act of making and drawing on the source and conviction of all the life giving forces seen in  the ritual vessels of folk, tribal, American Indian and Oceanic art. In limiting herself to making functional pots, she liberates herself from any self conscious ideas and notions in contemporary practice.  There is a sense of the new in her linear line decorations, mediated by a use of geometry that defines space. Over the years it has grown in layered dimension as she herself seeks greater activation between the motif and the form. Her forms rely on a sound sense of volume on which the tapestry of activated life can be transferred. Her scratched scored incised marks are used judiciously and through it we can see the pleasure derived in its making transferred to the user of the cup, mug, bowl platter, pot…..

Growing in years has not diminished the spirit, enthusiasm and grit determination to make and complete more pots, infectiously enthused to seek even more experiences in making and watching the pots being used by an even more number of enthusiasts.